Whence Identity?

A Christian view on how and where we find and build our identity. 

By Mark D. Harris

“To be a Turk is to be a Muslim” our Turkish tour guide announced during our tour of the Seven Churches in Revelation. I asked him why he believed that, and he replied that since Allah made him a Turk, clearly Allah intended for him to be a Muslim. Both his logic and his history were faulty. While the descendants of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks are overwhelmingly Muslim, the modern descendants of the Khazar Turks are largely Jewish. Present-day Gagauz and Chuvash Turks are predominantly Christian.

“I am a doctor” an indignant young woman told us after we had mistaken her for a nurse. We apologized, but that was not enough – she was angry and let us know. Many modern liberals would consider that a microaggression, evidence of inherent bias or even subconscious hatred (presumably conscious hatred would be plain old aggression). Older folk may just consider it a mistake, borne of the observation that even today, most doctors in America are men and the overwhelming majority of nurses are women. One wonders why this woman was offended by being considered a nurse instead of a doctor, as if nurses are somehow inferior to doctors, but that is a topic for another article.

A friend and prominent El Paso businessman went with our church on a trip to work with a local Christian congregation in Zambia. When the African pastor asked him to introduce himself, my friend answered as an American would. He told the pastor about his job and company. The pastor listened politely and then said, “Fine, but tell me about the important things – your family and your church.”

A Persian woman used to live with us. She said that in America, her work matters, but in Iran, her family matters. Here she is a (insert occupation) while there is the daughter of (insert name), granddaughter of (insert name), niece of (insert name). Someday she will be the wife of (insert name) and mother of (insert name). In Persia, relationships trump revenue.

How do we define ourselves?

These examples beg the question of identity – how do people define themselves? The Turk’s identity was as an olive skinned, young, single, heterosexual, male, Turkish Muslim. In my many conversations with him, it was clear that being a tour guide was a passing stage; it was not a large part of his identity. The female physician’s identity was as a white, young, single, female, American physician. Being a doctor was crucial to her self-image. My friend used self-identifiers that were important to Americans but nearly meaningless to Africans. Our Persian sister taught us that in many cultures, whose you are matters more than who you are.

People construct their identity differently over the generations. Biblical obituaries are often simple – “and he did right in the sight of the Lord” or “and he did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Character, not position or earthly accomplishments mattered. Obituaries in American newspapers before 1900 have a similar focus on character. On his death in 1788, Rev Josiah Sterns was noted to be “industrious and faithful” with “great and good character.”[1] Dudley Freese was a “kind husband and father… useful church member… and worthy citizen.”[2] By contrast, a quick review of recent obituaries in the Washington Post reveals lots about work and accomplishments, less about family, and little about character. Admittedly, my comparison in this case was not scientific, but was certainly suggestive.

Wealth, education, and socioeconomic status are other areas of division. Stereotypically, the rich and educated look down on the poor and less educated. This is sometimes true. It is also true that the poor and less educated sometimes look down on the rich and educated, or impute bias when none really exists. Contrary to some opinions, every group is capable of bias, arrogance, apathy, and hatred, regardless of how much power they perceive themselves to have. Morality and immorality are universal.

Identity matters. America today is fractured by identity groups X, Y, and Z fighting each other. Though it may be worse than in the past, such animosity is nothing new. In the 1850s, the “Know Nothing” political party opposed immigrants and Catholics. In the 1960s, Tom Lehrer performed the song National Brotherhood Week, mocking the façade of unity between identity groups in America:

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks, And the black folks hate the white folks. To hate all but the right folks Is an old established rule.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week, Lena Horne and Sheriff Clarke are dancing cheek to cheek. It’s fun to eulogize The people you despise, As long as you don’t let ’em in your school.

Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks, And the rich folks hate the poor folks. All of my folks hate all of your folks, It’s American as apple pie.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week, New Yorkers love the Puerto Ricans ’cause it’s very chic. Step up and shake the hand of someone you can’t stand. You can tolerate him if you try.

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, And the Catholics hate the Protestants, And the Hindus hate the Muslims, And everybody hates the Jews…

Identity politics and ethnic splintering are not merely an American phenomenon – they are present worldwide. Since the end of the Cold War, many states have splintered – Yugoslavia, Sudan, Iraq, and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – into many independent nations and regions. Conflict, not unity in diversity, has often been the result. In a nuclear world, the foreseeable results are frightening.

How should Christians respond?

Like everyone else, we are a mixture of sex, race, education, religion, national origin, skin color, etc. However, our overwhelming identity must be in Christ. Paul is absolutely clear:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

“Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)

The Apostle goes even further when he rebukes Peter for putting his ethnic identity above his Christian one (Galatians 2:11-14). Finally, Paul in the Holy Scripture tells us that followers of Jesus don’t even live our own lives. Christ does, and he is not divided.

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Christians are not men or women first. We are not rich or poor first. We are not black, white, or another race first. We are not American or another nationality first. We are not any other category first. We are Christians. Every other point of identity is secondary. Jesus Christ is God, and He will let nothing else take first place in the lives of His people. Identity matters and diversity is a good thing, but only if it acknowledges and contributes to the unity of the Church, the body of Christ.

Tom Lehrer also made the point that religion itself can be a source of hatred. But believers in Jesus have nothing to be proud of, and everything to be grateful for. We did not earn our salvation, as is required in other faiths. God gave it to us. Christians are sinners saved by grace; rescued by an amazing God, through no act or virtue of our own. The character that our ancestors celebrated in the obituaries above is evidence of the good work of God. There is no room for hatred of others in those who love Christ.


Believers in Jesus should be involved in righting the wrongs of society, whether poverty, disease, or injustice. But the unity of the Body and the advancement of the Gospel for the glory of God is always the highest goal. As Jesus said:

“That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:

I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” (John 17:21-23)

If the Church is One, if the Body of Christ is united, God will be exalted, and our world will be blessed.


[1] http://www.ryanwadleigh.com/obits1.html

[2] http://www.ryanwadleigh.com/obits1.html

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